While presenting the interim budget for 2022 in Parliament, President Ranil Wickremesinghe bemoaned the lack of national policies in Sri Lanka. Not only was it ironical that a six-time Prime Minister was making this comment, but he made this statement while reversing many decisions that were taken in the 2022 budget, presented by the SLPP-led government last year. Policy decisions that were reversed included tax policy, fertiliser policy and the age of retirement for the public sector. No doubt, these were controversial policies and reversal of the fertiliser policy in particular was long overdue. The worrying point here is not so much the lack of policies in Sri Lanka, but the lack of consistency in policy leading to an extremely unstable and chaotic policy environment that is one of the main reasons for the disaster the country is dealing with at this moment.
During the last several decades, especially since 1978, if there has been consistency in governance in Sri Lanka it has been in relation to the heavy hand of the politician in decision making from the most minute of matters to those of national significance. As the role of the politician became stronger, governance institutions whether the State bureaucracy or in terms of oversight, have systematically become weaker. Policies are inextricably linked to political personalities and shaped to further political careers rather than based on evidence, political vision and technical expertise. Of course, as those leading policy reforms, politicians will always be linked to particular policies – after all we still talk of the free education policy as the Kannangara Reforms, housing will always be linked with Ranasinghe Premadasa, the Mahaweli with Gamini Dissanayake and the Sudu Nelum Campaign with Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga.
However, one of the distinctive features of the post-1978 political landscape has been how driven policy has been by personal agendas and the lack of a coherent political vision. For example, Kannangara’s education reforms were the results of years of discussion and debate on the type of education most suited for Sri Lanka. But as the role of the policy expert diminished, as the institutional structures of the State became more and more driven by the interests of the ruling party, as ideology was replaced by rhetoric and populism, the national policy environment became more spectacle than substance. Policy making became less and less subject to discussion, debate and oversight – instead it has become part of political power games and one-upmanship. What was lost in the process was consistency and stability – but more importantly, erasure of the people who were supposedly expected to benefit from policy.
This particular form of policy making or what stood for policy making came into its peak during the Mahinda Rajapaksa years. Personal agendas – the furthering of the Rajapaksa political project and crude financial gains were the drivers of policy. Ranil Wickremesinghe, when in power, relied on his close circle of trusted friends – and they were notoriously bad at understanding the needs of people and did not care much for people anyway. Gotabaya Rajapaksa was expected to change all of this with his Viyath Maga – except that the Viyath Maga turned out to be as out of touch as Ranil Wickremesinghe’s coterie – the only difference being that they were crude Sinhala nationalists to boot. In the process, through these decades, institutions of governance – particularly, State institutions gradually crumbled. State bureaucrats simply became glorified clerks only expected to implement the decisions of their political masters. As successive governments treated the State sector as their employment agency to distribute favours for political supporters, State institutions as sites of political patronage, not only did the independent State bureaucrat become a rare species, or simply side-lined, the State sector became one of the least inspiring professions in which to be engaged. Smart, intelligent public officials with integrity found themselves fighting a losing battle and either disengaged or attempted damage control.
Today, government politicians are coming out in droves criticising the inefficiency of the public sector and claiming that it’s a drain on the state. This is a popular position to take as the majority of the public are impatient with public services that do not meet their needs. Yet, this ignores the fact that this situation was created by these very same politicians and the political culture they established. Weakening the functioning of the State has been a very serious and damaging result of the political culture that has been in place in this country for decades – perhaps the one consistent policy in recent times.
All of this also points to the lack of accountability that has reached epic proportions in our country. Last week in Parliament, Minister of Agriculture Mahinda Amaraweera described the heinous state of agriculture in this country as a result of the infamous chemical fertiliser ban and the consequent travails faced by the farming community. Yet, this very same policy that was now being decried, was defended stoutly by his colleagues a bare four months ago. He too was part of the Cabinet that implemented this decision. Where is the accountability? It has been widely acknowledged that the tax cut imposed by the government in 2019 is one of the reasons for the drop in government income over the past couple of years. Yet, who is held responsible for this decision? Former Governor of the Central Bank, Ajit Nivard Cabraal, withheld vital information or deliberately misled the public and Parliament with regard to public finances. But he is currently enjoying retirement including the pension that he approved for himself! He was a political appointee, stoutly defended till a few months ago by members of the government. What right does this government have to remain in power after all this? What right do they have to claim that they are now going to provide solutions for the problems that they created? Why should they be believed or trusted to do so?
So, it is not just a lack of national policies that is the problem in this country – it is the lack of a system that holds those in power accountable for their actions and the lack of processes that allows for oversight, debate and public oversight. Putting such a system in place, redefines the role of the politician as someone who is accountable to the public, someone who is there to represent and protect the interests of the public, rather than someone who imposes their will on all and sundry. That requires a change in the relationship between the public and the political authority, a re-imagination of the contract between the government and the people. In fact, that is the system change we need to fight for – nothing less will suffice.
By Harini Amarasuriya